It is useful to think of language and power as being deeply and complicatedly intertwined in China Mielville’s Embassytown. In the text, language is central to the characters’ identities, as well as the power that comes alongside it. Hosts, while at first appear as the more dominant and/or powerful social class in the text, are also left tremendously vulnerable, as they can only speak “Language” and are highly dependent on the Ambassadors to translate Language into language, so that if need be they can communicate with, and perhaps more importantly control, Terre, or the humans. The Language or language one speaks in the text comes to be a defining factor for the characters both personally and collectively. For example, Avice’s affiliation with being a simile, which is at first almost entirely apathetic or nonexistent, comes to gradually identify with a “simile” or perhaps more widely a “figure of speech” collective. More broadly, as the plot unfolds, we see that the stability of Embassytown as we once knew it breaks down entirely once the Hosts begin to access language and one could argue take it hostage as they appropriate it for lying. Thus, one could argue that the entire social hierarchy and stability of Mielville’s fictional world relies almost exclusively on maintaining this balance of access to language and therefore power.
As I tried to briefly introduce last class, I think it would be a useful exercise to try and map the idea of language and power within the context of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality. Derrida situates the idea of language and foreignness within the paradigm of hospitality. More specifically, he deconstructs the idea of hospitality into the absolute Law of hospitality and the laws of hospitality. To summarize briefly, the Law of hospitality is the absolute ideal form of hospitality, one that makes the Host unconditionally hospitable to the guest. In this ideal state of hospitality there are no laws to which the host/guest relationship is bound. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that in order to achieve the Law of Hospitality one must follow the laws, or rules, of hospitality that inevitably govern it, thus rendering the Law of Hospitality ultimately unattainable.
In order to think of the Law of Hospitality in the context of Embassytown, we would be forced to identify the hosts (with a lowercase h) and the guests in the social hierarchy that defines the space. I would argue, and I hope Derrida would agree, that while at first the Hosts would appear to be the hosts (as the colonizers and characters in the positions of power), it is ironically the Terre who possess the power in language and are hosting the Hosts. Derrida states, “The foreigner who, inept at speaking the language, always risks being without defense before the law of the country that welcomes or expels him…He has to ask for hospitality in a language which by definition is not his own, the one imposed on him by the master of the house, the host…This personage imposes on him translation into their own language, and that’s the first act of violence. That is where the question of hospitality begins: must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term…?” (Derrida, 13). In the context of Embassytown, we should ask ourselves who is really “imposing language” and therefore inhabiting the role of the host? In the text Scile posits to Avice, “We’ve always known the Hosts need you, right? You and the rest of you” (Pg. 141). It would be interesting to try and work out how this power dynamic plays out against the backdrop of Derrida’s Law/laws of hospitality. Could the Law of hospitality ever be achieved in Embassytown and how? Perhaps the breakdown of Embassytown’s social structure can be attributed to a breach in the laws of hospitality on the part of the Hosts? On the part of the humans? Furthermore, we could think of Embassytown as being a space inhabited by locals and foreigners. How does language define who is a local and who is a foreigner? And how does possessiveness (either necessarily or unnecessarily) over these titles prevent the possibility for absolute Hospitality?